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Are You Zone Savvy?
If you live in an area of Connecticut that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) just bumped into a warmer plant hardiness zone, you may be in for a pleasant surprise. Being in a warmer zone, even if only slightly warmer, opens up new planting possibilities.
The USDA establishes plant hardiness zones based on average temperature minimums over time. The new hardiness zone map reflects weather information collected from 1976 through 2005 which boosted some parts of Connecticut into a slightly warmer zone.
As you can see below, only the northwest corner held onto chilly zone 5b status (average minimum temperatures from -15 to -10 degrees Fahrenheit). Covering most of the state is Zone 6, split into colder 6a and warmer 6b with average temperature minimums from -10 to -5 degrees and -5 to 0 degrees, respectively. Connecticut’s new zone, 7b with temperature minimums between 0 and 5 degrees, runs along the shoreline from New Haven westward to the New York state line.
It’s now easier to exactly pinpoint the zone in which your property is located, a feature particularly useful for locations near zone borders. Simply enter your zip code into the interactive version of the map. Portions of Stamford, for example, now fall in zone 7a while others remain zone 6b.
A plant hardy in zones 3 to 7 is well suited for all of Connecticut’s hardiness zones as long as the plant is properly located to meet its light, soil, moisture and wind exposure needs. A plant listed hardy in zone 7 to 9, however, will likely only survive in Connecticut’s chillier zone 6 if given extra winter protection.
Most plant tags list hardiness zone ranges. If this vital information is missing, ask a nursery professional what hardiness zone the plant prefers so you have a clear understanding of what the plant needs before you bring it home to your garden.
Joene Hendry, an Accredited Organic Land Care Professional (AOLCP), designs and maintains gardens in the southeastern Connecticut River valley and blogs about gardening in Connecticut at https://www.joenesgarden.com.
Find your zone: Lookup
If you’ve spent any time on our website, or reading any plant catalog, you’ve likely encountered the term “hardiness zone.” We’d like to de-mystify this term a bit, and explain how location should play into your selection of plants.
What Is a Hardiness Zone?
Using historical temperature data, the USDA has divided the country into 13 hardiness zones, ranging from 1 (coldest) to 13 (warmest). Each of these zones is further divided into “A” and “B” for greater accuracy, with A being colder than B. Click here to see the USDA’s hardiness zone map. These zones are defined by average annual minimum temperature. For example, a zip code in which the average annual minimum temperature is between -15 and -10 Fahrenheit is assigned to hardiness zone 5B.
The idea behind the zones is that gardeners can look up their hardiness zone and use it to identify plants which will thrive in their area. For example, a gardener in Northwest Connecticut (hardiness zone 5) will confidently plant a variety that has been rated hardy to zone 4, but would generally not plant a variety that is only rated hardy to zone 6, because the zone 6 plant would not likely survive their typical winter.
How to Find & Use Your Hardiness Zone on WhiteFlowerFarm.com
First, enter your zip code in the “Find Hardiness Zone” box at the top of the page. Then, as you navigate our site, you can use the filters on the left side of the page to narrow down a listing to display only plants that will thrive in your zone.
Our site will offer a gentle warning at checkout if you are shipping a plant to an address outside of its suggested hardiness range—this is intended not to dissuade you, but only to avoid the possible disappointment of a plant failing to perform well due to a climate mismatch. Please be aware that we cannot honor our usual guarantee on plants that have been shipped outside of their suggested hardiness range.
Sometimes Hardiness Ratings Include “S” or “W” – What Does This Mean?
When listing the hardiness range of a plant, we often “split” the warm end of the range—for example, you might see a plant listed as Hardiness Zone: 3-8S/10W. In this instance, the 3 refers to the “cold hardiness” of the plant—all else equal, this variety should overwinter successfully in Zone 3. The 8S refers to the humid Southeast and the 10W to the comparatively dry Pacific Coast states of CA, OR, and WA—this plant can tolerate Zone 8 temperatures in the South, and Zone 10 temperatures on the West coast. In Northern climates, summer heat is not typically a consideration.
So to summarize—a plant listed as 3-8S/10W should successfully overwinter in zones 3 or warmer, tolerate humid heat up to Zone 8, and tolerate dry heat up to Zone 10.
We realize this is complicated; the problem is that the USDA zones are really not sufficiently specific. For example, our nursery in Connecticut is in the same hardiness zone as Taos, NM—a climate that could hardly be more different than ours. Furthermore, there are innumerable other variables that may determine how a plant fares in a given site. We find that customers, over time, gain a good understanding of which plants do and don’t work for them, and that this understanding is much more helpful than a strict reliance on hardiness zone. When in doubt, please contact us—our customer service team is extremely knowledgeable and ready to assist.
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture changed the plant hardiness zone map, the standard by which gardeners, garden centers and nurseries, select plants that are hardy enough to withstand winter conditions in a particular area. Most of the state of Connecticut falls in hardiness zone 6, although the extreme northwest part of the state is zone 5, and the southern coastal region is now considered zone 7.
This is a pretty significant change for the state of Connecticut because it means that plants have a greater chance of surviving winter. When you choose plants that are indigenous to the New England area, you have the certainty that they’ve survived in the area for many decades, if not longer.
Things to Consider Before Choosing Plants
Although hardiness is an important factor to consider when choosing plants, you also need to think about other important issues that will affect the success of your Connecticut landscape.
- Light – If you have lots of direct sunlight throughout your property, look for plants that need full sun. If you have shade, look for plants that do best in part sun or full shade.
- Hardiness Zones – Only choose plants that are hardy in USDA hardiness zones 5 through 7. As long as the plant includes those zones, they are well-suited to growing anywhere in the state.
- Water – Look for plants that don’t need wet or moist soil. Plants that can survive in average or dry soil are easier to grow and maintain.
Qualities to Look For in Low-Maintenance Plants
Zone Hardiness – The most important thing to look for regardless of the type of plant and growing conditions you have, is zone hardiness. If you want to lessen your landscaping maintenance, stick to hardy perennials that will survive tough winter conditions.
Ground covers – think of ground covers as a useful tool to help you avoid weeding. They also help soil temperatures stay consistent and keep it from drying out as fast.
Regional Wildflowers – Because they are native to the area, they adapted to climate conditions, not only to survive winter; they also spread or reproduce themselves, so once you plant them, you won’t have to replant them – until you divide them, but that won’t happen for several years.
Drought-Tolerance – Drought-tolerance means plants can survive extended periods without water. The ability to survive without frequent water makes these plants low-maintenance, easy to care for, and ideal in most conditions. Just be sure that you choose plants that are hardy in Connecticut.
Perennials – If you’re looking for low-maintenance plant options, choose perennials because they come back every year. Although your property may not look complete the year you plant them, you will see the benefits in future years, and you won’t have to plant new things every year – something you have to do when planting annuals.
Descriptions to Avoid for Low Maintenance Landscaping
If you are trying to cut the amount of work you have to do on your property, there are certain words to look for; they are indicators that that plants whose description or label bears the words, need a lot of maintenance.
Soil pH – Avoid plants that must have a specific soil pH or that need a certain acid or alkaline level. It takes work to get the soil to those levels.
Organic Matter – Avoid plants that must grow in soil amended with organic matter. You don’t want to have to keep running to the garden center to buy bags of compost to improve your soil.
Moist or Wet – Plants that need moist or wet soil are water-loving plants that have to be watered often. They may also need frequent feedings. If you are looking for low-maintenance, steer clear of this description.
Low maintenance plants thrive with minimal care, so you won’t be a slave to a water and fertilizer schedule. As long as you keep your property clean and free of weeds (either with ground covers or mulch,) you’ll be able to enjoy the things you plant for years, as they reseed themselves, spread, and produce more flowers and lusher foliage.
Get in the (plant) zone
Perhaps it is too early to start thinking of those mid-March days that eventually tuck old man winter away for yet another year.
Still, it is getting late in the winter season and I can almost smell that first grass cutting and the bright yellow forsythia in bloom.
Spring will be here before you know it, but for now, the indoor planting is starting to pick up. It seems as if other gardeners are starting to get anxious as the mailbag is full once again.
Q: I’m confused about plant zones and what purpose they serve. When I purchase a plant it will list its hardiness in a range. Can you explain what this range precisely means? — F. Bergson, Easton
A: The United States Department of Agriculture is responsible for the map of the U.S. that divides it into 10 separate zones based on average minimum winter temperatures with a link to frost dates for the region. Each zone is then further divided into sections that represent 5 degree differences within the 10-degree zone. For example, Fairfield County is listed as zone 6a, whereas Litchfield County is listed as 6b. Zone six lists average annual minimum winter temperatures as -10 degrees to 0. Based on this, any plant listed as hardy for zone 6, or within a stated range (for example, hardy in zones 4 through 7) is fine for planting here in Connecticut.
Q: I have a bunch of spring bulbs that I never got around to planting last fall. My question is what do I do with them? If I plant them, will they still bloom this year? — H. Goodwin, Guilford
A: This is a pretty common question right about now as we get closer to spring and gardeners are finding bags of bulbs that never made it into the ground during the fall. My suggestion would be this: If the bulbs still look and feel firm, have no noticeable blemishes or soft spots, you can plant them in the spring. Most often, though, even outward appearances can be deceiving since most times bulbs that weren’t planted probably were not properly stored either and can dry out. However, if there is still life inside, it will likely push out green leafy growth in the spring, but not necessarily flowers. This growth will help restore the bulbs for blooming the following year, however.
Q: While in Europe last summer I came across a variety of lettuce they called Batavian. It was the most delicious lettuce I’ve ever had. Can it be grown in this country and how do I find seed to start? — P. Fenwick, Westport
A: Batavian lettuces are widely grown throughout Europe but are neither shipped here nor grown in the United States since they are very delicate and can spoil rather quickly. The lettuce itself is extremely tender, never bitter and has a crispy texture similar to Romaine with the size and flavor of a Butterhead variety. More so, they have a very good tolerance for weather and are very slow to bolt. Some specialty seed companies (like Shepherd’s Garden Seeds, 860-482-3638) sell the seed.
Q: I have a False Aralia indoor plant whose lower leaves keep dropping. The plant was a gift to me last summer, and I really need some advice on how to keep the plant alive. — K. White, Seymour.
A: False Aralia (Dizygotheca) with its slim, coppery-colored air leaf structure make beautiful long-lasting houseplants if they have enough humidity and warmth. Providing enough of these two conditions is difficult during winter. I suspect the real problem for the leaf drop is a dry environment. Misting will help, running a humidifier will help even more, as will night temperatures in the 68- to 70-degree range.
Q: Last year my lawn service accidentally cut down a bed of irises before they ever bloomed. They all came back over the summer, but never did bloom. What should I expect this year from them? — R. Foss, Southport
A: Probably few if any blooms this year, as it can take a full two years for the rhizomes to build up enough reserves for flowering. I’d suggest feeding the plant in spring with a fertilizer such as 5-10-10 and if they fail to blossom this year, perhaps they are overcrowded. You would want to dig up, separate and replant the rhizomes in late July or August if that’s the case.
Q: I want to grow the herb tarragon from seed, but cannot seem to locate a source for them. The plants are so expensive and I’d just prefer to grow my own. Can you tell me where I can purchase them? — L. Lazerus, Norwalk.
A: You’ll never find seeds of French tarragon seeds because they simply do not exist! True French tarragon (not the tasteless Russian type) never sets viable seed. The only way to obtain this herb is to purchase nursery propagated plants.
Q: Why do many of the hybrid varieties of seeds fail to germinate as well as non-hybrid types? It’s’ very frustrating to know you’ve purchased a packet of 50 seeds and then realize several weeks later that only a small portion of them have germinated. Could I be doing something wrong? — B. Warren, Stamford
A: As a general rule of thumb, hybrid seeds have a much lower germination rate than those of traditional non-hybrid varieties. Hybridization, while producing superior cultivars from their parents, does not always produce the most reliable seeds. It’s safe to say that when starting certain (not all) hybrid strains, double or triple the amount of seeds you start, so that you’ll end up with the quantity of plants you desire.
Q: I love sunflowers, but wish I didn’t have to reseed them each summer. Is there a strain of sunflower that comes up each year? — J. Lackey, West Haven
A: The species of sunflowers, or Helianthus, is by no means confined to just annual types. There are plenty of perennial sunflowers that make wonderful carefree additions to any garden bed. As with all sunflowers, pay careful attention to the eventual heights of the variety you choose to plant. Some will remain compact and small, while others will reach into the six-foot tall range. A personal favorite is a double-flowered yellow variety called “Flore Pleno,” which blossoms from early July right through the end of September.
Readers are invited to submit garden tips and questions to this column. Questions of general interest will be published as space permits. Mail to: Bing J. Carbone, 5 High Meadow Road, Huntington CT 06484.